Few if any creatures that swim in the sea loom larger in the popular imagination than sharks. Unfortunately, the images they call to mind in far too many people are those of terror and bloodshed. While some species are indeed fear-inspiring in appearance and – in regard to other sea creatures – feeding habits, a far larger number are far more fascinating than fearsome. And when the facts about their physiology, life history, and behavior are known, even those most commonly popularly depicted as man-eating monsters lose their nightmarish aura and become the complex, superbly evolved and ecologically important creatures that they truly are.
But, deeply ingrained as it so often is, how can the popular image of the murderously savage shark be transcended? As with most subjects about which a certain amount of “useless baggage” must first be unloaded in order to make room for the truth to be taken aboard, a question-and-answer scenario is ideal. Needless to note, however, that few have a learnéd authority ready-at-hand to whom such questions might be asked – until now that is. For with the publication of George Helfman’s and George H. Burgess’ Sharks; the Animal Answer Guide, anyone seeking answers to their questions about sharks – as well as the related skates, rays, and chimeras – now has access to two eminent authorities in the fields of ecology and shark biology respectively.
Wholly structured in a question-and-answer format, Sharks; the Animal Answer Guide begins by addressing common-sense foundational questions such as different types and number of species, largest, smallest, prehistoric ancestors, evolution, and basic importance to the overall oceanic ecosystem. From there, the chapters become more focused, addressing questions about such topics physiology, coloration, behavior, and reproduction, with concluding chapters taking up ecological and conservation issues (very cleverly split into two chapters – one from the shark’s perspective and one from that of humans), mythology, literature and popular culture, and research. As would be expected in such a thoroughly researched and well-planned book, each of these chapters is generously supplied with photos and illustrations to make any potentially difficult to understand or visualize point crystal clear.
When viewed at the level of their entire taxonomic class, the sheer variety of sharks, skates, rays, and chimeras alive today is truly astonishing. To think that a single book could collectively address in any meaningful way such a diverse group of creatures as the Large-tooth Sawfish, the Pacific Spookfish, and the Scalloped Hammerhead, as well as all the more readily recognizable species such as the Whale, Tiger, and Great White Sharks, would ordinarily be unlikely at best, but this is indeed exactly what Helfman and Burgess have done. By the time one is finished reading the entire book, not only will it be all but assured that any question ever brought to mind will have been thoroughly and understandably answered, but that a host of questions one never previously contemplated will have been as well.
In a world where sharks and their relations are so widely feared, over-fished, and in all-too-many cases imperiled if not outrightly endangered, the dissemination of accurate and understandable information about them is crucial – not only to their own survival but to the health of the larger ecosystems in which they live; ecosystems to which we ourselves are connected in ways that we cannot afford to sever. I most highly encourage that all interested not only purchase and read Sharks; the Animal Answer Guide themselves but that additional consideration be given to presenting a copy as a gift to anyone with an interest in sharks – particularly if that interest has only thus far been fed by the sensationalistic and most often inaccurate information accumulated from popular movies and television programs. Ignorance and error are indeed a darkness of the mind for which the easiest correction is the introduction of light. To that end, this book veritably glows.
Authors: Gene Helfman and George H. Burgess
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Series: Animal Answer Guides
Pages: 288, with 34 color photos, 72 halftones, 10 line drawings
Date of Publication: May 2014
Sharks; the Animal Answer Guide is the most recent addition to Johns Hopkins University Press’ Animal Answer Guide series. Previous volumes include geckos, penguins, frogs, rabbits, squirrels, small wild cats, fishes, parrots, porcupines, and turtles.
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.